Healthcare research 2012: Sickness absence

Reactive perks such as employee assistance programmes and private medical insurance have risen in importance as ways to help reduce sickness absence, says Debbie Lovewell

Benefits designed to help employers manage employees’ mental and physical wellbeing top the list of methods to reduce sickness absence levels. This year, respondents cite employee assistance programmes (EAPs) or other forms of stress counselling as the most popular way of tackling the issue, cited by 69%. This may reflect employers’ desire to manage the increased stress levels experienced by many staff as a result of the current economic climate, due to either work-related or personal issues.

In second place is private medical insurance (PMI), cited by 68% of respondents, which has risen from sixth place in 2010, when 54% of respondents said it helped to reduce absence.

These reactive perks have pushed more preventative measures down the list, suggesting employers are focusing more on helping staff to return to work, or avoid going off sick in the first place, once they have developed a problem.

Sickness absence management schemes, which gained in popularity between 2007 and 2010 to become the top perk thought to reduce sickness absence, appear in third place this year.

Other benefits have also fallen in popularity. In 2000, for example, health screening, well woman, or well man clinics (63%), and on-site occupational health departments (60%) were the top two benefits thought likely to help cut absence. These are now ranked much lower in importance. This year, 43% of respondents said health screening, well man and well women clinics were effective at tackling absence, while 28% said the same about on-site occupational health departments.

Employee Benefits
Employee Benefits

The average number of days’ sickness absence respondents’ staff take each year has remained fairly static over the years. In 2009, for example, 47% took fewer than five days a year, and 37% took between six and 10, while 11% did not know the absence levels in their organisation. This year, these percentages stand at 49%, 38% and 13%, respectively.

Employee Benefits

Sickness absence can be a significant cost for any organisation, so it might have been expected that a higher percentage of respondents would actively record this, particularly as employers remain under pressure to reduce or control costs. However, just 35% of respondents say they actively keep records of this cost.

Employee Benefits

Although this is a slight rise on the 31% of respondents that said the same in 2010, the proportion that record the cost of absence has gradually fallen in the past few years. In 2006, 47% of respondents said they kept a record of the cost of sickness absence to their organisation.

Where respondents do record the cost of absence, some appear to have lowered this in recent years. In 2009 and 2010, for example, 21% of respondents said absence cost them less than 1% of payroll each year. This year, this percentage has increased to 29%. As in previous years, however, 2% of payroll remains the most common cost of sickness absence.

Employee Benefits

The main causes of sickness absence have changed little over the years. Minor ailments, such as colds, flu or food poisoning, have remained the leading causes of absence among respondents since 2008, although the percentage of respondents citing this has fluctuated over the years.

Once again, this is followed by musculoskeletal ailments, cited by 54%. This has remained static since 2010, when 55% said these were a major cause of sickness absence. Previously, however, musculoskeletal ailments saw several significant rises, having been an issue for 46% of respondents in 2009 and 34% in 2006.

This year was the first time we have asked specifically about personal mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, and work-related mental health issues. These were cited as causes of absence by 38% and 22% of respondents, respectively. Mental health issues have risenn up many employers’ agendas over the past few years as organisations have taken steps to reduce the stigma attached to these and provide benefits to support any staff affected.

Employee Benefits

This year, 65% of respondents have a strategy in place to deal with sickness absence.

However, the format such strategies take has changed significantly since we last asked this question in 2010. Back then, the top components of employers’ sickness absence strategies were clear policies and procedures, disciplinary procedures, and the provision of absence statistics to line managers. These had remained unchanged since 2003.

Over the past two years, the most significant change has been the increased importance placed on early intervention by line managers, which, this year, tops the list of sickness absence strategies. More than three-quarters (78%) now take this approach, compared with 50% in 2010 and 47% in 2009. Line managers are often ideally placed to take action to deal with sickness absence issues, particularly in large organisations, as they may be closer to individual employees and feel comfortable working with them to help them return to work as soon as possible.

Return-to-work interviews and work-life balance or flexible working policies remain popular strategies for tackling sickness absence.

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However, disciplinary procedures have fallen sharply in popularity over the past two years. Just one-third of respondents now use these, compared with 66% in 2010 and 71% in 2008, perhaps because employers now prefer to work with employees to find a mutually agreeable solution to absence issues, rather than taking a harder line in the first instance.

Employee Benefits
Employee Benefits

Read more Healthcare research 2012